Grief and loss are one of the most common issues that bring people into therapy, and yet we know little of how to cope with grief, and what the stages of grief might be. The intensity of the pain, and the almost overwhelming emotions and intensity of our thoughts come as a shock. Who are we really?
In the aftermath of the Paris bombing, I spoke to several Parisians as they talked of a sense of shock at the intensity of feelings that emerged, and we came to a realisation that grief can rip aside the veil over our most primal and suppressed emotions, revealing anger, desire for revenge and desolation, to name a few.
Meeting the deep feelings that come up in crisis situations like loss or trauma can be disturbing, and I can understand the temptation to suppress this normal grief reaction as soon as possible. We may be shaken to our core, as we find ourselves far from the comforting shore of our usual sense of self.
1. Not me. It is true that we often live our lives as if loss was not going to affect us. Our ability to suppress the knowledge of loss is the way we can get on with our lives. We live as if death is not going to happen to us, that we will not experience it. ‘You others, you will die, but not me’, we secretly tell ourselves, ‘I am lucky. It will not happen to me, not today’. This voice of our little self is comforting, and is so habitual, that it takes a shock or crisis to rip us out of our egoic bubble of invulnerability, and we are so surprised when we discover the real truth.
Exercise: Feeling guilt is quite common as we work through grief. Schadenfreude, literally ‘harm-joy’, is the uncomfortable pleasure we get when misfortune occurs to someone else, and not us. It is part of the almost physical relief we feel at still being here, still being ok, that it wasn’t us this time; and it is another way of protecting our-self from the loss. This is a normal aspect of grief, and it is ok to feel this.
By accepting our feelings of self-interest, we are in a position to consciously decide how to respond. So the exercise is to bracket off our critical inner voice, and acknowledge our personal relief. It does not make us a bad person, and is helpful to our normal grieving. By doing this regularly, the experience of guilt may reduce in intensity and then any residual rationalisations or blaming -caused by our guilt feelings- can be worked through with something like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
2. Anger. How are we angry? Who are we angry at? Chances are, we want to take it out on someone, and that can leave us feeling guilty at our irrational impulses. When we lose someone, or something, we can feel anger at them for deserting us, or for leaving us with difficult feelings. Essentially, because our lost one is not there for us, we blame them for their absence and we are angry at them.
Exercise: Consider our anger as like a beast, a part of us that can’t be reasoned with. It is present, and it is a part of us, and if we try to ignore it, it will bite the first outstretched hand, and then we will feel like the bad dog. By being aware of our beast, and noticing its learned bad habits -perhaps we take it out on those near to us-, we can learn to live with it and train it to be more sociable. It may require short term cathartic release by punching or screaming into a pillow or going for a run, and it will require long term release in other more robust ways of approaching the world, perhaps by being more assertive, and standing up for what really matters to us in a non-aggressive but determined way.
3. Loyalty. Our feelings of grief are an expression of loyalty to our lost one. We don’t want to let go of our feelings of grief because they are a way of holding on to the memory. It might feel callous or uncaring not to feel sorrow, and like a vigil, it proves the strength of our loyalty, ‘lest we forget’.
Exercise: Think about some of the qualities of the one who has passed. Then imagine them, wherever they are now, with these qualities. When I consider a dear friend who died of cancer, I remember her positivity in her suffering, and her calmness with me while I was distraught, and her joy and sense of fun before her sickness. As I imagine the joy and peace and consideration coming from her, I feel them like the warmth of the sun coming out from behind a cloud, and I feel glad. Her qualities are still with me, even if she is gone. She left those with me. And because I can feel them in this way, they are qualities that I now have. We can’t feel something we don’t have the capacity for already within us. The fact that I can feel those lovely and precious feelings is proof that I have that quality myself. My lost one was like a candle that lit something within me. How many of our current and past relationships do that and we don’t notice?
4. Fear. With loss often comes forced change. With the unbearable grief also can come pressing financial or other practical requirements. Fear of being alone, and having to face responsibilities on our own can be paralysing. How can we seek a helping hand when we need it?
Exercise: To face our fear takes incredible courage, and perhaps responsibilities that were too much before are now in front of us. Who can we find to help us? Can we seek support? In ourselves, can we face these challenges, rather than avoiding it, and where we can’t face it alone, can we ask for help?
Part 2 of this series on grief will be posted in the second week of the new year 2016.